Are sidewalks in Manhattan’s Financial District too narrow for carefree strolls (or, perhaps more commonly, hurried commutes)? Is there a way to forge paths that better serve pedestrians and cyclists? How about a more equitable Downtown streetscape?
Inquiring minds on Community Board 1 are intent on finding out. They’re hopeful answers might come from a 2019 study, dubbed the “Lower Manhattan Pedestrian Priority Streets Study” — that was never finished.
The proposed study was announced by the Department of Transportation three years ago with the promise of $500,000 in funding from then-Council Member Margaret Chin’s discretionary budget. Later, the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated a pause. CB1 hasn’t heard of any plans to start the research back up since, leaving some with even more questions than had originally been posed as part of the investigation’s scope. “What happened to that $500,000?” asked CB1 member Patrick Kennell.
Now, the board’s Transportation and Street Activity Committee is angling to jumpstart the process of examining how Downtown’s streets could be reimagined to better suit pedestrians once again, after a unanimous vote on Tuesday evening in favor of a resolution stating just that. “It’s time that we really pick this back up and try to move it forward,” Kennell said. “Things have not gotten better.”
Roadblocks To Better Streets
FiDi’s streets are, by many accounts, perilous for pedestrians. Rosa Chang, a CB1 member, described instances in which people walking with children may choose to venture into the street because the narrow sidewalks don’t allow enough space to pass by oncoming walkers who may “be dangerous or may be acting a little strangely” — a sentiment echoed by others, too.
“The streets are crazy narrow and anybody who lives down here knows this,” Chang said.
And there’s intense competition for what valuable streetscape real estate does exist. Freight deliveries taking up time and space on “clogged streets,” as Chang put it, came up frequently as one topic of concern. There’s also garbage — so much of it that a dedicated Twitter account, “Trash Heaps of FiDi,” sprung up in 2017 to keep tally (and to mock). “All it takes is a garbage truck to block a road and everyone is stuck in traffic,” said Eric Yu, a CB1 member who voiced concern about showing too much deference toward pedestrians.
Streets For All
The streets are heavily relied upon, by cars and by pedestrians and by bicyclists, though some (namely those in vehicles) seem to have long held the upper hand. The language of “prioritizing” pedestrians thus sparked a moment of controversy among CB1 members present for the Tuesday night committee meeting. A current draft of the resolution concludes with a statement expressing CB1’s intent to rally for “pedestrian safety and space” in FiDi.
“No one — with any serious consideration, anyway — is calling for the entire pedestrianization of the Financial District,” Kennell said. “That’s just not what this is.”
There may be varying understandings of the appropriate language still, though the underlying message is a unified one: FiDi’s streets aren’t likely to become pedestrian-only, but ought to offer a safer experience to those who use them. “Prioritizing pedestrians doesn’t mean prohibiting cars,” said CB1 member Detta Ahl.
Navigating A New Path Forward
The solution to better managing multiple forms of traffic must come from collaboration across multiple city agencies, CB1 wrote in its draft resolution, beseeching the DOT, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, Downtown Council Member Christopher Marte and Mayor Eric Adams to take up the cause. Committee members are also requesting that other projects in the Financial District be “considered and coordinated” in relation to plans for a more accessible streetscape before the issuing of permits.
The resolution, beyond calling for the reinvigoration of the 2019 study, goes so far as to lay out a few possible first steps toward better streets, like “daylighting” intersections to increase visibility and amplifying bike parking and Citi Bike stations. “Shared streets are a great tool and prioritize pedestrians,” offered Ahl. “They allow traffic on the street at five miles an hour.”
The resolution, in its current state, lists “garbage corrals” in parking spaces as one possible way to quell Downtown’s trash problem and poses the use of cargo bikes and “delivery bays” separate from traffic lanes as a solution to freight backups. “Managing the way that we utilize the space between the curbs — the streets — is really the key to all of this,” Kennell said.
It’s only the start of what could, someday (and with some work), become an unrecognizable FiDi. “We know we’re asking for something bigger than what we’re going to get,” Ahl said, “so I would be comfortable asking for a lot.”
“It’s time that we really pick this back up and try to move it forward.” Patrick Kennell